Hearts That Strain Jake Bugg EMI Jake Bugg said around the time of last year’s album, the vibrant, eclectic On My One, that he wants every album he makes to be different. This fourth offering from the 23year-old Nottingham singer and songwriter certainly lives up to that notion, although it’s not always there to be celebrated. Hearts That Strain, a collection of love songs in case that wasn’t obvious, is a departure from the bombast ( Gimme the Love, Put Out the Fire) and sweeping pop melodrama ( Love, Hope and Misery, The Love We’re Hoping For) of his previous outing, not to mention being light years away from the punk attitude ( Lightning Bolt, Trouble Town) of his blustering, bluesy self-titled debut in 2012.
There’s no trace of his Hendrix fixation on Hearts That Strain or indeed any of Bugg’s admirable guitar histrionics. In their place comes, in part, a nod to Nashville and its country credentials, as well as influences from the more middle-of-the-road compartment of great American 1960s pop. The opening How Soon the Dawn is a good example of that. One of three songs cowritten by and featuring the Black Keys’ singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach, it’s the kind of romantic pop tune typical of Burt Bacharach’s golden age to which one might slip out to the pool for a Campari and soda. The romantic vein continues on the countryish, uneventful stroll Southern Rain. The next song, also featuring Auerbach, is more rewarding, a vaguely psychedelic tune that displays Bugg’s angsty voice and boasts a lyric — unlike several others here — that doesn’t descend into cliche (“If you should hear my name / be a friend and please refrain / from saying we were friends / let them tell their lies / in the event of my demise”. While On My One was largely a one-man band and production, Bugg took this batch of songs to Nashville and recorded with Auerbach and some seasoned session dudes who have names such as Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield on their CVs. Producer David Ferguson and sidekick Matt Sweeney, who worked on Bugg’s Rick Rubin-produced second album, Shangri-la, give the 11 songs a gloss for which they seem tailor-made. There are lovely moments, however, where the quality of the song rises above the sheen. This Time is an uplifting country stroll underpinned by pedal steel, while Waiting, featuring the sultry vocals of Miley Cyrus’s little sister Noah, is a seductive soul ballad. Best of all is the sprightly country blues Burn Alone, the third co-write with Auerbach and Ferguson.
In contrast The Man on Stage, hinged by piano and strings, overplays the sentimental card, as does Bigger Lover and the closing, plodding epic Every Colour in the World. It’s as if in order to move on and perhaps mature as a 23-year-old Bugg has opted to smooth down the rough edges that thus far have been his trademark. Quality songs can survive that, but there aren’t enough of them here to make this Bugg’s best work.